Senators and the Expansion Draft: Who Should They Protect?

On July 21, the Seattle Kraken will take the stage for the first time in franchise history and kick off the much-anticipated expansion draft. Fans have debated over who will be protected and who will be left exposed ever since Seattle was granted the 32nd franchise back in December 2018, and while some teams will have an easier time making their selections prior to July 17, others, like the Ottawa Senators, will have a much more difficult time narrowing down their final protection list.

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The last time the Senators went through this ordeal back in 2017, they lost a significant contributor in Marc Methot. (from ‘Senators forced to roll dice with Methot in expansion draft,’ Ottawa Sun, 06/28/2017) Likewise, a look at their protected players from that draft is a dismal trip down memory lane, with names like Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau adorning the list.

The Ottawa Senators exposed Marc Methot at the 2017 Vegas Expansion Draft. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The rules for the 2021 Expansion Draft are the same as they were in 2017. Teams are required to keep seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, or they can keep eight skaters and one goalie. Similarly, the requirements for the mandatory players a team has to leave exposed remain the same.

Finally, for this article, we are assuming that any upcoming restricted free agents are going to be re-signed by the team. Without further ado, let us try to predict the future.

Senators Exempt From Expansion Draft

The logical place to start is by outlining the young players who are ineligible for the expansion draft, which means the team does not have to waste a protection slot to keep them. Exemptions are “all players who have accrued two or fewer professional seasons at the end of the 2020-21 season, as well as all unsigned draft choices appearing on the team’s reserve list.”

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For the Senators, this means several top prospects and young stars are safe, like Josh Norris, Tim Stützle, Artem Zub, Alex Formenton, Erik Brannstrom, Jacob-Bernard Docker, and Lassi Thomson.

Projecting Senators’ Protected Forwards

The Senators have a strong group of young forwards on their roster, so it’s likely that they choose the seven-three-one protection option. Here are the seven forwards who are most likely to be protected.

Forwards: Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Colin White, Connor Brown, Evgenii Dadonov, Nick Paul, Vitali Abramov

When looking at the forwards, Tkachuk is an obvious choice for protection. He is already one of the unquestioned leaders of the team despite being only 20 years old. This season, he leads the team in points, hits, shots, and ice time among forwards. By the time the 2021-22 season rolls around, the hope is that he will take that next step into becoming one of the league’s premier power forwards.

Brady Tkachuk Ottawa Senators
Brady Tkachuk is a massive piece of the future for the Ottawa Senators. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Batherson is the next most logical player to protect, as he thrived in his first-line role this season. With just five games remaining, he’s tied for the lead in goals and game-winning goals, despite playing in his first full season. The speedy winger has developed excellent chemistry with Tkachuk and Norris, forming a formidable top unit that the Senators won’t want to break up any time soon.

From there, it is not as clear. White got off to a rough start this season, following a tough 2019-20 season where he put up just 23 points in 61 games, but his sizable contract extension from the past offseason shows that the team believes in him long-term, and he did start putting it together as 2020-21 wore on. On the other hand, Connor Brown had a surprisingly effective 2019-20 season, sitting second on the team in scoring with 43 points, but wasn’t as consistent this season despite breaking the franchise record with a goal in eight consecutive games.

Colin White Ottawa Senators
Colin White has bounced back after a dismal start to the season. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Dadonov has not been the player many expected him to be this season after scoring 25 goals and 47 points in a shortened 2019-20 with the Florida Panthers. Instead of a top-line threat, he’s been very streaky and hopped between the second and third lines. Still, he currently sits fifth in goals among the Senators, and after aggressively pursuing him last offseason, management won’t want to risk losing him for nothing.

Although considered more of a replacement due to his role on the team, Paul has become a fan favourite thanks to his hard work and consistency, and should be protected. As for Abramov, he is a younger player who is still trying to prove himself professionally. While the Senators have several forwards of a similar age in the same boat, Abramov seems to have the highest ceiling out of the bunch and has enjoyed a strong season in the AHL.

Protected Defensemen and Goalie

The three defensemen and the goaltender projected to be protected are as follows.

Defensemen: Thomas Chabot, Victor Mete, Josh Brown

Goalie: Joey Daccord

Much like Tkachuk, Chabot is an obvious answer. He is an All-Star caliber defenseman that continues to get better with age. He is, by far, the best rearguard on the roster and will continue to spearhead the attack for years to come. After that, the Senators have the ability to get a bit creative with their protection list.

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Since being claimed off waivers from the Montreal Canadiens, Mete has revitalized his career with the Senators. Replacing the recently departed Mike Reilly on the third pairing, he’s meshed well with Josh Brown, providing solid defense for a team in desperate need of it. He’s a restricted free agent this summer, but will likely earn an extension and thus be protected for the expansion draft.

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators #72
Thomas Chabot is the anchor of the Senators’ young defense (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Mete’s defense partner is likely to be protected as well. Josh Brown had all but written his way out of Ottawa before the trade deadline, but after joining Mete, he’s become much more consistent. His improvement has had unintended consequences, however, making it difficult for Bernard-Docker to get back into the lineup after his debut in April, but that’s not a bad problem to have at this time.

Goaltending is a question mark for the franchise, and it will likely cause the most debate for management. Matt Murray is the starter right now, but after a season filled with injury and consistency issues, it’s possible that the Senators decide to take a chance and leave him exposed, banking on the fact his contract is not something the Kraken will want to take on, and there being more skilled goalies available.

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Therefore, the decision boils down between either Daccord or Filip Gustavsson. Both played very well in short bursts this season and have shown promise as a future starter, but are still relatively unproven. Gustavsson is younger, but also less experienced, having only played six NHL games in his career. Daccord has suffered some injury trouble, but when healthy, spelled Murray off on several occasions, often playing better than the veteran. Given his experience, the Senators likely protect him over his younger counterpart.

Notable Senators Exposed to Seattle

Forwards: Chris Tierney, Ryan Dzingel, Vitali Abramov, Logan Brown, Austin Watson

Defensemen: Nikita Zaitsev, Cody Goloubef

Goalies: Matt Murray, Filip Gustavsson, Marcus Hogberg

In all honesty, losing any of these players will not be a backbreaker for the Senators, but seeing Logan Brown move on would likely sting the most. However, it’s become clear that his time in Canada’s capital has likely come to an end. Injuries have ruined a once-promising career, forcing him to miss crucial development time in the AHL, but even when healthy, he has not performed in a way that gave the Senators confidence in his potential. If he’s not claimed, it’s possible he could also be traded over the summer.

Logan Brown Ottawa Senators
Logan Brown may not be with the Senators next season (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Tierney is a viable third-line center who could instantly slot in on Seattle’s roster, but his upside is limited. His production has fallen for two seasons now, and in response, his ice time has been cut. If the Kraken claim him, it would make room for one of Pinto, Michael Amadio, or Clark Bishop.

As previously mentioned, the Senators will have the most difficult time with their goalies. If they’re feeling bold, or if they make a side deal — potentially involving Logan Brown — they may leave Murray exposed in order to protect one of their other young, talented netminders. Gustavsson likely will end up drawing the short straw, and could be an attractive backup option for the Kraken. Hogberg could also earn some interest, but, like Murray, has been wildly inconsistent which will decrease his value.

Final Word

In all reality, the 2021 Expansion Draft will be far worse for other teams. The Senators may lose a valuable player to the Kraken, but they will keep their young core intact. It is also worth noting that it is hard to project how a player may perform two years from now, as Abramov or Logan Brown could blossom into a top-six option by then.

The future is starting to take shape for the Senators, and with a strong finish to the 2020-21 season, that only becomes more clear. Lots can change in two months, but as of now, the Senators seem to be in a shielded position.